NEW YORK – With Danny Granger playing only five games for the Indiana Pacers last season thanks to patellar tendinosis, Lance Stephenson slid into his starting spot and the former Brooklyn Lincoln High School star played well, averaging 8.8 points and 3.9 rebounds in 78 games.
That was an encouraging season for Stephenson, who hadn’t produced much in 54 games over his first two seasons following one season at the University of Cincinnati.
This season, the 23-5, Eastern Conference-leading Pacers are one of a small handful of legitimate NBA title contenders and Stephenson has been a huge reason why. His numbers have never been better, averaging 13.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists in 35.2 minutes per game. One other statistic beginning to get attention is his NBA-leading three triple-doubles, the third of which was 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists on Sunday night against the Boston Celtics.
With Stephenson having this type of season, the question begs asking. Should he be an All-Star?
“I said before, he has three triple-doubles this year and the season is still early,” Roy Hibbert said on Monday evening before his Pacers defeated the Nets, 103-86, at Barclays Center. “He should be in consideration for an All-Star appearance with what our record is. I don’t think you just give it to anybody and he’s definitely earned it. I don’t know anybody besides LeBron James that could just give you a triple-double like that.”
Stephenson has been on a tear of late, most recently with the triple-double on Sunday and then 26 points on 10-for-16 shooting, seven rebounds and five assists against the Nets. Over his last five games, he is averaging 18 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game, while shooting 51.4 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range.
The 45 percent from deep may be his biggest achievement to this point, seeing as how his jumper was never his strongest attribute and he is shooting 31.8 percent out there for his career.
“I’m not sure if he’s an All-Star, but he’s definitely gotta be in the conversation,” Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s playing with defensive disposition, he’s running back on defense, which is something he hasn’t always done. Sharing the basketball, playing with a great edge, he’s giving our team a great edge, scoring the basketball and he’s not passing up shots like he was early in the year. He’s carrying the threat of a 3-point shot and overall, he’s giving us an edge.”
It’s very early to be talking about Stephenson’s contract situation, but it is worth noting that this strong start comes during the final year of a contract that is paying him just $1.005 million this season. Stephenson will be an unrestricted free agent come July 1, and he is in a position to potentially cash in big time.
The Pacers own his fully-vested Bird rights, meaning, theoretically, they could offer Stephenson a maximum deal of five years at a projected $79.9 million, depending on what the Basketball Related Income (BRI) and salary cap look like this summer. Any other team could offer Stephenson four years at a projected $59.3 million.
No one is saying Stephenson is worth that much money, but that’s what is out there for him if the Pacers or anyone else thinks he’s worth it. Stephenson has stated publicly his desire to remain with the Pacers, but there are various factors to consider.
Pacers management has said it would prefer not to pay the luxury tax, which should be somewhere in the neighborhood of $73 million next season. If the Pacers opt to bring back Luis Scola next season at just under $4.9 million, they will have about $66 million committed before even getting to Stephenson.
If that scenario plays out, it would be difficult for the Pacers to offer Stephenson the maximum if that’s what they wanted to do. At that point, the situation turns into how high of a priority he is to the franchise. That factor isn’t likely to be decided for months.
“This is a great team, the future holds itself, I would love to stay here,” Stephenson said on before Monday’s game. “I knew I was always talented, I just needed the opportunity and confidence just playing in a game and getting used to teammates and used to the flow of the game. I always knew I could play in an NBA-type game.”